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Las Vegas, March
Bethany James, a twenty-eight-year-old Vegas poker phenom, stared at her quarry with a hunter's gaze as he riffled his chips, little columns neatly folding between his fingers. The tempo grew faster. It was one of his "tells."
"So you want to gamble," he said when she pushed her bet in. "Did you hit the river?"
"Jump in and find out."
She ignored the familiar buzz on her PDA for the fourth or fifth time as she studied her opponent's face, her un-flinching stare boring into him like a surgeon's scalpel, cutting away the outer layer, seeing the tightened muscles beneath his expression of calm.
He was bluffing all the way and she was going to take him down.
"One way to find out."
When he was weak, he had the habit of putting his card protector, a small gold skeleton, down on his cards with authority, and he'd done that.
I've got you now, she thought. To needle him a little more, she said, "I should put the clock on you."
"I think you have fours with an over card."
The other three men, all under thirty years of age, had already been small-stacked and eliminated one at a time.
Truth, as her gambler father once saidquoting his hero, the great billionaire gambler Kerry Packeris what is left when all the lies and secrets, those little "tells," have been revealed and your lie is the last lie standing. That is the moment when you take control of the game.
She waited for her opponent to play his mind games, knowing he was already looking to come over the top, maybe even go "all in" after she'd set him up by limping in with a small bet to look weak, enticing him into believing he could buy the pot with a bluff.
Through the window to the right of the dealer's head, over the empty flower box, beyond the patio of this estate on Sunrise Mountain, Beth stared for a moment to rest her tired eyes, her gaze lingering on the shimmering sea of orange that was the neon metropolis of Las Vegas.
Someone once said of her that she was just like the city she grew up in. A chameleon, a changeling, an impostor.
Yes, true. Survival demanded it. "You checked on the opening bet. Played slow. What do you have?" he said in a low whisper.
He was searching, hoping to see something. All night she'd been building the fake tell for him to see. Three times she'd bluffed and when she did, she'd pulled her bottom lip in between her teeth and chewed lightly on it. If he picked that up, he would jump all over her.
She pulled her lip in and gnawed away.
Beth could see nearly all the casinos from where she sat and she was outlawed from just about every one of them. Because of her card counting days, she was forced to use disguises when she did attempt entry. Now she mostly played in high-stakes private games like this one.
"You didn't hit a set, did you?" he teased.
She didn't respond. The city below was laced with traffic, like a vast tangle of white and red snakes, and in the darkening sky to the east planes stacked up like a string of bobbing Chinese lanterns as they descended on McCarran International Airport.
Her eyes rested, she returned her focus to the game. This twenty-three-hour marathon of Texas Hold 'Em was nearing its denouement. She glanced to her left at the man she was heads-up with: black shaggy hair, an angled face and whiskey-colored eyes. She could smell blood, see it in his play, the faltering steps of a confused and tiring animal.
She knew her adversary was a member of a sophisticated cheating crew, but tonight he was freelancing.
The owner of this house was a friend of hers and knew something was going on between her and the man she was now heads-up with. The man was an addicted gambler who believed that, with or without cheating, he could take down anyone, especially a woman.
Beth knew a lot more about him than she had told her friend. She knew he needed a big score to service his debts.
She'd set the bait and her prey was ready to walk into the trap. Just you and me, babe.
She gave him a stone-cold stare and worked her lip.
The buy-in for this winner-take-all game had been fifty thousand. The quarter-mil take would pay the bills for a long time, but Beth had another use for her money.
She had two income streams, both intermittent. Playing cards for herself, and getting paid to bust cheating crews on behalf of those who'd been taken by them. But this particular game was strictly personal.
The man she was about to crush belonged to one of the largest and most sophisticated cheating crews working the international circuit, a crew that had started twenty years ago in Vegas. The one her father had once belonged to before he was murdered and dumped in a garbage bin sixteen years ago.
The crew was directed and financed by a secret backer who was either her father's killer, or knew that killer's identity. To find out who the backer was she had to flip one of his people. She'd chosen carefully.
She knew the one she'd chosen as the weak link was mortgaged to the hilt, his sources tapped out and in deep hock to loan sharks. He'd borrowed heavily for this last stand and she was going to snatch the prize away from him.
Once she had him at her mercy, she'd make him an offer he couldn't refuse.
He did as she expected and came over the top of her bet with an all-in push. If she followed him in and won, it would be over.
A dog without tricks, she thought, as she followed his all-in, much to his surprise and chagrin.
When she laid down her set, she said, "You're right, I do have a pair of fours, and one extra."
He was stunned. "You limped in, then slow-played when you had them from the get-go?" He seemed amazed and angered that someone would do that.
"It's called a winning tactic."
He stared at her cards, his face twisted in bitter fury mixed with that sick feeling all gamblers know so well. The shock of falling into total ruin.
"I've had crap all damn day," he protested, throwing his cards across the table.
"Maybe it's not the cards," she said. "Maybe it's how you play them."
She could see the rage in his eyes. He wanted to lunge across the table and grab her by the throat, but the other men in the room were her friends on the poker circuit, not his. He continued venting his anger verbally.
At that moment Beth got yet another buzz from her PDA, at least the fifth or sixth since the game had started. She'd been ignoring the outside world's attempts to contact her, but now that the game was over she reached in her black shoulder bag, glanced at the message and swore under her breath.
It was the last person on earth she wanted a message from right nowDelphi, her contact with Oracle.
She interrupted her opponent's verbal tirade. "Sorry, I'll have to catch your trash talk on another day."
In the wake of his swearing and the laughter from the other men at the table, Beth slipped out through the glass doors onto the balcony.
She read and reread the text message with consternation and disbelief. This was incredibly bad timing. She was being mission-tasked and Delphi wanted her at the Oracle town house in Virginia ASAP. In the past, she'd been assigned missions that were analysis-based, math and statistics being her area of expertise. This sounded very different. And agents were almost never summoned to the Virginia office.
Why now? Why today?
Using her thumbs like little pistons, she sent a message back requesting a replacement because she was involved in her own urgent business. She could have called Delphi and spoken to her, but not here.
A negative reply returned instantly. Code red. That meant critical and it meant now.
For the first time in her career, Bethany seriously considered the ramifications of refusing an assignment.
She knew if she was working directly for the Feds, NSA or CIA the problem would have been simple. Take the assignment or resign.
But Oracle agents worked for an intelligence agency that existed without mandate or congressional oversight. It didn't show up on any traditional radar, and Beth wasn't sure what the protocol was for refusing a mission.
I'm not going to Virginia, she thought. Not now. I'll call in later, when I'm home. She decided that if Allison Gracelyn was available, she'd talk to her. She'd understand. Allison worked with Oracle, too, and she was the one person who could get Bethany released from the assignment.
She went back inside. The men were drinking cognac and smoking cigars, except for her nemesis. He had made a hasty and bitter departure. She'd find him later with her proposition.
"Some of us are better losers than others," Manny Kirk, the owner of the house and a longtime friend said.
She nodded. "That's because you, unlike our friend, know you'll have a chance to get your money back."
The men laughed.
She added, "I'd love to stay and party, but I have some business that needs immediate attention."
There were a dozen or so "poker houses" owned by these guys and their friends scattered around Vegas. Games went on day and night. Partying for them wasn't about drugs and fast women; they were the nerds of the party world and preferred playing pool, video games and more poker on the Internet. These young hotshots in this new world of poker had the good life by the tail.
"I guess you want the money," Manny said.
She smiled. "That's why we live and breathe, is it not?" In the end, unlike the big TV games where scantily clad casino girls brought out trays of money, this was much more subdued.
While the money was being retrieved from a safe, she called Curtis Sault, a bodyguard she employed whenever she was in a big game in Vegas. He'd dropped her off the previous day and now she was in need of a fast exit. The ex-Army Ranger turned professional bodyguard had been told, if she won, he'd be in for a substantial bonus.
She transferred the quarter mil to an expandable travel bag, thanked her host and the other players and then left. With the bag of loot slung over one shoulder, her purse over the other, she felt a little like a happy bank robber.
It was fully dark now when she spotted Curtis Sault roaring up the road in his vintage '58 Corvette. He pulled over the tricked-out red beauty and she dropped the bag on the floorboard and jumped in, settling in the red leather seat with its cool chrome trim. The bag sat between her feet.
Curtis did a one-eighty and they headed down the mountain. He glanced over at the bag. "Is that full of dirty laundry, or should I be congratulating you?"
"You should be smiling from ear to ear 'cause I just paid for your vacation in Costa Rica and then some."
"I'm liking the sound of that. You know what amazes me?"
"These guys you play poker with don't get robbed, all the money they have around and no security."
She agreed. Many of the young guns of poker were so flush with cash that it had become commonplace to go into one of their houses and see it everywhere. Money was the new drug of choice.
Beth settled back, her mind preoccupied with how to handle backing out of the Oracle assignment.
They dropped quickly down past the Mormon church that stood on the side of Sunrise Mountain looking down on Vegas like a condemnation. It was her father who told her the Mormons provided the casinos with their most valuable employees, as they had long ago proven to be honest and trustworthy, a highly sought after quality in a casino.
Without warning, Curtis swerved and braked hard, the car's headlights framing a black car that was blocking the road. "What the hell's this?"
He brought the Vette to a skidding halt.
Two men on the far side of the black car raised their arms and extended from their hands the unmistakable glint of gun metal.
"Get down!" Curtis yelled.
He reached for the glove box, pulled out a weapon and at the same time started to back up. Bullets slammed through the windshield.
Another car pulled out of a side street behind them, its high beams flooding the Vette and blinding her when she turned to look.
The ambush was perfect. The trap doors closed at both ends. And when she looked at Curtis to see why he wasn't doing anything she saw blood on his face.
"Get out, run!" Curtis said as he fired his weapon first one way, then another.
She snapped off her seat belt, grabbed the door handle, opened the door and he pushed her out onto the road.
The firing was from guns with silencers that made little spitting sounds. She rolled over the side of the embankment, her small shoulder bag tangling around her neck as bullets kicked dirt and rocks around her.
When she stopped rolling, she pushed herself up and started running. Glancing back as she ran, she saw Curtis get out of the car, still exchanging gunfire. He was trying to get away, but then he fell, face first onto the pavement.
A sickening feeling clenched her stomach.
Two men came after her, scampering down the hill, fanning out. Then she spotted a third running down the road.
The money was in the car. Why were they after her? Did they think she had the money in her shoulder bag?
Then the frightening thought raced into her mind that it wasn't the money. It was her they were after.
They wanted to kill her.
The houses along the hill were in uneven rows and the men were trying to cut off her escape routes.
She darted into what looked like a narrow lane between two large buildings, only to find that it was an alley that had been dead-ended by a high wall connecting the structures.
She turned and retreated the way she'd come in, but then heard someone running. Frantically she looked for a place to hide and found nothing. She tried a door but it was locked.
Everything slowed to a near halt. She felt the pulsing of her blood through her veins, the intense weight of the air, the granulated texture of the wall her hand brushed against, the push of the stones beneath the feet.
Her gut became a knot of cold, sickening fear.
In panic and desperation, Beth snatched up a large rock and waited at the entrance of the narrow alley.
It wasn't in her nature to die passively, trapped like a rabbit. Her reflexes and reactions had been honed in the tough backstreets of Vegas as the daughter of a down-andout gambler, and later she'd been trained as a teen in martial arts and survival combat tactics at the Athena Academy.
She heard the gunman before she saw him, his breathing heavy, footsteps crunching gravel as he rounded the corner.
Beth crouched in the blackness, coiled tight as a cobra. She struck, driving up and swinging the rock with everything she had.
Startled, he had no defense other than to raise his hands a split second too late to shield his face.